Obituary: John McDougall, champion piper and renowned tutor

John MacDougall, champion piper, piping judge and renowned tutor. Picture: John Jeffay
John MacDougall, champion piper, piping judge and renowned tutor. Picture: John Jeffay
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Born: 1936 in Aberdeen. Died: 18 February, 2016 in Kincraig.

John McDougall was a champion piper whose knack of cleaning up in piping competitions in the north of Scotland led to his rivals affectionately nicknaming him the “Highland Hoover”.

Regarded as the ultimate competitor on the Highland Games circuit, McDougall was famous for practising outside in all weathers to harden himself for the climatic vagaries of the Scottish summer.

The consistency and excellence of his performances were such that pipers in search of first prizes would often try to work out which games McDougall would be appearing at so they could try their luck elsewhere.

McDougall, who died peacefully in his sleep at home in Kincraig, won all of the major piping prizes including the Gold Medals at the Northern Meeting in Inverness and the Argyllshire Gathering in Oban.

He was also a kindly mentor to many pipers and after his competitive career finished he became a scrupulously fair judge of piping.

Recognised as a masterly exponent of piobaireachd – the bagpipe’s classical music – his views on settings and styles of tunes were much sought after and respected.

He was regarded as an authority on the so-called “Balmoral-style” of piping, a method of playing he inherited, through Pipe Major Bob Brown, one of the Queen’s Pipers at her Deeside retreat. Brown’s playing derived from the legendary John MacDonald of Inverness, a giant of early 20th century piping who could trace his musical lineage back to the MacCrimmons of Skye.

Born in Aberdeen, McDougall’s first introduction to the bagpipes came when he joined the Boys’ Brigade, aged ten.

He soon joined the Bucksburn band in the city, where he was taught by Pipe Major Davie Duncan.

Through Pipe Major Duncan the youngster was sent for lessons with Pipe Major Brown, who – along with his friend and fellow Royal piper Pipe Major Bob Nicol – was regarded as one of the great piobaireachd teachers.

When not working on his piping skills, he trained as a printer. He did his national service with the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders and played under Pipe Major Evan McRae.

On his demob he became a firm fixture on the solo piping circuit, where his crisp technique, expressive style, immaculately tuned instrument and competitive spirit made him a prolific winner.

His victory in the Northern Meeting Gold Medal came in 1960 when he played Lament for Captain MacDougall. Nine years later he joined the exclusive club of double Gold Medallists when he won at Oban playing The Battle of the Pass of Crieff.

The prizes kept coming in the elite competitions for Gold Medallists. At Oban, he was a five-time winner of the Former Winners March, Strathspey and Reel (1969, 1972, 1974, 1977, 1978) and twice winner of the Senior Piobaireachd (1978, 1981).

He won the piobaireachd title at the Grant’s/Glenfiddich Championship in 1976. At Inverness, he won the Clasp for former Gold Medallists in 1978, and the Silver Star for light music in 1966.

At the big London competition he took the Open Piobaireachd in 1976 and was a two times winner of the Silver Chanter competition held at Dunvegan Castle in memory of the MacCrimmons.

McDougall also had a distinguished pipe band career and played in the prize-winning Edinburgh Police Pipe Band and the Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band, comprised of some of the top soloists of the time .

In 1962, he married Vanora and the couple went on to raise two girls, Fiona and Mairi, with McDougall becoming a grandfather to Sandy, Iain and Scott.

In 1973 he took over as schools piping instructor in Badenoch and Strathspey and the family relocated to Kincraig. Many pupils of John MacDougall went on to secure top prizes and became stars in the piping world.

After he retired from competing, his duties as a judge meant he remained in touch with the piping scene. In his later years he suffered ill -health and was unable to move around without the help of his trusty stick and latterly his wheelchair. But with the help of his wife Van and friends, he was able to keep judging.

Kingussie piper Sandy MacDonell paid tribute: “He had been my piping tutor since my early teens and someone I regarded as a close friend throughout my life.

“Much has been said of John’s competitive achievements and there can be no question that he was one of the world’s greatest pipers, a complete player who loved the competitive side of piping.

“However, there was much more to John as a piper. John loved piping and had an immense knowledge that he was always willing to share, his wealth of piping stories often holding a hidden lesson.

“The piping world is a much poorer place for his passing.”

Pipers from all over Scotland gathered at the Inverness Crematorium yesterday for McDougall’s funeral, where the Principal of the National Piping Centre Roddy MacLeod marked his passing by playing the Banks of Locheil, Samantha’s Lullaby and Bonnie Anne.